Gunnison Valley ranchers have long feared the effects of prolonged drought. But what if a solution to that problem also places stockgrowers in the driver’s seat for helping to curb climate change?
A research project involving local ranchlands is aimed at improving the resilience of agricultural operations in the face of a changing climate while at the same time drawing heattrapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The project is being undertaken by second-year Western Colorado University Master in Environmental Management (MEM) student Alexia Cooper on four separate parcels in the valley. Cooper intends to measure the effects of utilizing compost — in this case, Gunnison Gold, a byproduct from the city’s water treatment plant mixed with wood chips — to both improve water-holding capacity of soils and boost carbon sequestration.
Sequestration is the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and held in the soil. In this case, the compost is intended to help produce larger, more productive plants that result in greater storage of carbon in the soil than would occur otherwise.
At each of the four sites, two inches of Gunnison Gold was spread in the beginning of June. Those areas are in close proximity to control plots — where no compost has been applied. Already, the plots that received compost are showing taller plants and greater productivity than those that did not.
At both the composted and control plots, Cooper is measuring multiple aspects of soil health, plant diversity and biomass, water-holding capacity and changes in temperature. All of the sites are set up for longterm study management — primarily to gauge carbon sequestration over time.
“My question is, how much carbon can we sequester on rangelands in Colorado with this type of land management strategy of the application of compost?” Cooper posed.
Plants provide the answer
Parker Pastures’ holistic ranching operation on the city’s Van Tuyl Ranch is one of the parcels on which the research is taking place. Bill Parker sees numerous benefits to Cooper’s approach.
“If the compost allows us to grow bigger plants that can sequester more carbon, we’re doing it,” he said.
Parker envisions a day in which ranchers in the United States will be paid for sequestering carbon in the soil.
“There’s a lot of talk of various technological approaches to capturing carbon,” he said. “The good Lord created that a long time ago with plants.”
While Parker questions the feasibility of compost on a large scale — such as grazed public lands — he believes application on a small scale on irrigated lands makes sense, particularly since one alternative is ammonium nitrate, which kills microbiology.
On the other hand, the use of compost embodies a land-management philosophy employed by Parker Pastures that includes improving microbiology of the soil — from earthworms and fungi to bacteria and protozoa. That ultimately results in more productive plants and greater carbon sequestration.
“Soil fertility is a huge issue,” Parker said. “I always feel like I’m gaining ground here, but I have a long way to go.”
The water-holding conundrum
Research as part of the MEM program is focused on addressing community needs. Cooper listened to community members and went on a few tours of the area in an attempt to identify her project.
“I continually heard from ranchers that they were wanting to improve the water-holding capacity of their soils and focus on soil health,” she said.
The sandy soil predominant in the Gunnison Valley is known for its high rate of water filtration — meaning that it holds relatively little water. That dilemma paired with constant concern about the impacts of drought led the Cranor family to offer a portion of its ranch northeast of Gunnison for the research.
The portion of the property Cooper is utilizing is notoriously difficult to irrigate.
“For us, it was how can we better utilize these pastures?” said Hannah Cranor, vice president of Cranor Inc.
While the carbon sequestration component of the project was less appealing to Cranor initially, she noted that the research is expected to result in a GIS map of the ranch depicting where sequestration is greatest.
Yet, Cooper’s work may help provide answers for stockgrowers not involved in the project but who operate on what’s projected to become an increasingly arid landscape.
“If ranchers go out of business, what is that going to do to the valley economy and tourism?” Cranor posed.
‘Fascinated with soil’
Cooper was raised in northeast Utah and earned an undergraduate degree in environmental science from Westminster College in Salt Lake City — during which her studies focused heavily on permaculture, or the development of sustainable and self-sufficient agricultural systems.
“I’ve always been really fascinated with soil,” she said, noting particular interest in ways in which soil can help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Through the MEM program, Cooper also learned of the Marin County Carbon Project in California. After implementing a half-inch of compost atop soil, the project saw immediate benefits in productivity, carbon sequestration and overall soil health.
Cooper was inspired and decided at the urging of her professor to combine the topics of water-holding capacity and carbon sequestration since they’re closely related. Soil moisture is directly related to how much organic matter it contains, and one way to improve that is through the addition of compost.
She has applied for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to the tune of $25,000 to fund her research. Thus far, however, she’s operated on a shoestring budget that includes $900 raised through GoFundMe, $750 from the Colorado Mountain Club Foundation and a $3,180 grant through Western.
Additionally, $4,000 worth of Gunnison Gold was donated by the City of Gunnison, and Hearne Excavating donated delivery of the compost.
“One of my final goals with this project is how can I improve the resilience of ranchers to climate change,” Cooper said. “Last year was really difficult for a lot of them.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)